It's Just A Model
Way back in the mists of time there was a game called Castles which, funnily enough, revolved around building castles and then raining arrows and pouring boiling oil on anybody foolish enough to attack you. Flash forwards ten years and Stronghold has brought this wonderful concept up to date with a dose of real-time strategy and sim elements. Your castle is constructed by placing walls and prefab parts such as towers and gatehouses on the map, with optional extras such as moats, pitch ditches and spike traps also available. It's all very simple point-and-click stuff, and unlike in Castles your defences appear as soon as you place them, rather than having to wait for a peasant to come along and start shifting the stones. The game's isometric viewpoint can make accurate placing of objects awkward at times but luckily any trees, buildings and hills can be flattened by pressing the space bar, allowing you to get a clearer view of the ground plan of your fortification and see what's hidden behind your walls. You will also need plenty of peasants to support your castle building antics. Farms, hunters' posts, mills and bakeries will feed your growing population, woodcutters' huts, quarries and mines provide the raw materials you need, and various kinds of armourer and weaponsmith will provide equipment so that you can start hiring troops to defend your castle. You can also add churches, inns, gardens and maypoles to keep your people happy, and gallows, stocks and dungeons to keep them working hard. At first sight there's a lot to keep you occupied, and it's hard to see how the game could fail. But fail it does.
The heart of the game seems to be the military campaign, with 21 missions to battle your way through as you seek to defeat four renegade lords and reunite your country. Missions range from breaking sieges and capturing enemy castles to raising gold and holding off enemy attacks, but all of them have two major flaws. The first problem is that combat is a mess. Disappointingly infantry can hack their way through huge stone walls, so if you were looking forward to epic sieges with well-balanced armies you can forget it. Usually your enemy just swarms up to your castle walls and stands there bashing away until a section collapses and they can get inside. Any survivors then make a bee-line for your keep to kill your lord, at which point the game ends. Sometimes your enemy will bring a few catapults with them, but often you can pick these off with archers or send out a group of infantry to destroy them, while the rest of the enemy army sits by and watches. This doesn't leave much room for tactics, and you can win many missions simply by getting as many archers as you can afford and sticking them all on top of the wall nearest the enemy. The other problems is that you always know which wall this will be, because the enemy comes from the same direction every time, helpfully marked by a big signpost at the edge of the map. As you know exactly where your enemy will strike there is often little incentive to build a real castle. Instead you can sling up a wall blocking off the enemy's approach, throw in a couple of gatehouses and towers for good measure, and then line up your archers on the battlements. If you build too close to the enemy's arrival point your walls will crumble as soon as their troops show up though, and annoyingly there is no indication as to how close you are allowed to get. Often the collapses seem almost random, and on the smallest maps you can build what seems to be a perfectly reasonable fortification only to see it fall apart for no obvious good reason. If you're lucky you may be allowed to dig a moat as well, which the enemy will need to fill in before they can start hacking at your walls, and as the AI doesn't show much initiative you can hold off vast numbers of troops fairly easily.
We Want .. A Shrubbery!
There is also a shorter economic campaign, with missions revolving around gathering resources and/or building weapons within a time limit. These are entertaining enough, but the only threat comes from wolves, bears and the occasional bandit attack, which means that your time is usually spent building up a village rather than a castle. At this point you realise that Stronghold lacks the strategic depth of a real city management sim. Peasants will flood into your castle as fast as you can build hovels to house them in as long as you keep your people happy, and all you need to do to accomplish this is to make sure they have enough food. Produce a surplus and you can make them even happier by giving them extra or double rations, and at this point you can start taking taxes from them without worrying about your popularity waning. This isn't particularly challenging, although you do at least have to worry about gathering other resources fast enough to meet your targets before the time limit runs out in the economic campaign and stand-alone missions. Something which does make the game harder is the fact that your peasants aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, quite happily wandering through a pack of wolves on their way to work and ending up as dog food. Even more entertaining is watching your castle catch fire. If a building goes up in flames the workers will walk straight into the inferno as if nothing is wrong, then emerge seconds later screaming and writhing as they are reduced to charcoal briquettes. It doesn't stop there either; the game notices that the building doesn't have a worker anymore and converts one of your spare peasants to fill the vacancy, and he promptly walks into the fire and dies as well. This cycle of death continues until the fire goes out or the body count becomes so high that your popularity falls enough to stop more peasants coming to the castle to replace their suicidal predecessors. Not very impressive.
Go Away, Or I Shall Taunt You A Second Time
Which brings us to free build mode. This should have been the jewel in the game's crown, leaving you to get on with building the castle of your dreams, but instead it's just a watered down version of the economic campaign. You have no targets to meet, no time limit to play against, and at the end of the day the whole thing is rather pointless because you know that nobody is ever going to attack your beautiful castle. As such it's quite fun for a while, but ultimately unrewarding. At the other end of the scale is siege mode, which is all combat and no economics. This features a choice of nine historical castles to fight over, ranging from Leeds and Windsor to Heidelberg and Monteriggioni. This can be quite fun as either attacker or defender, but the dubious wall-bashing tactics make it less involving than it perhaps should have been, and battles are fairly short. The answer to this is invasion mode, which gives you time to build up your defences and raise an army before the enemy attacks. Sadly though, of the scant six maps on offer for this mode only half of them are very well designed, and one is a horrendous maze of swampy valleys which really doesn't belong here at all. Which is a shame, because this is potentially the most enjoyable part of the whole game. The good news then is that Stronghold comes with a built-in map editor which is incredibly easy to use and allows you to knock out new siege, invasion, economic and military missions in a matter of minutes. How popular this will be remains to be seen, but failing all else you can always run off a few castles by yourself and see how you fare against the AI. Multiplayer could also have helped to salvage Stronghold, but every time I've checked the in-game server browser so far it hasn't found anybody for me to play against.
Stronghold had a lot of potential, but the reality is sadly disappointing. AI flaws make the game irritating at times, while battles are mostly a case of firing arrows and pouring boiling oil as infantry march up to your walls and proceed to tear them to pieces with toothpicks. Artillery plays a remarkably small role in the proceedings, although amusingly you can lob dead cows into your enemy's fortress to spread the plague. Little moments of genius do shine through, like the sadistic pleasure to be gained from setting fire to a pitch ditch as a group of enemy soldiers marches obliviously across it, but these are too few and far between.